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Trans-Pacific collecting rises in the global marketplace

The breaking down of national barriers is giving rise to new cross-cultural collecting habits, a hot topic at Art Basel HK.

As well as being market playgrounds, art fairs have increasingly become forums for conversations that capture the zeitgeist of collecting. Among the talks presented at Art Basel Hong Kong last month, was the topic of trans-​Pacific collecting, the trend of collectors to diversify across neighbouring cultures and jump national borders.

Australian Phillip Keir, Co-founder of the Keir Foundation and Chairman of the Biennale of Sydney, joined panelists Alan Lau, Hong Kong businessman, collector, Chair of Hong Kong’s seminal space Parasite and member of Tate’s Asia Pacific Acquisition Committee, and Indian based collector, Anurag Khanna, Director of Carbon Edge Industries.

Khanna, winner of the 2014 Forbes Young Collector, set the scene with an acknowledgement of the drive to collect: ‘Collecting – it is a disease. I have it – I admit it,’he said.

William Lim, Phillip Keir and Alan Lau talking about trans-pacific collecting in Hong Kong; photo Artshub

Bridging India, Hong Kong and Australia, geography understandably sat at the foundation to this talk.

The conversation was steered by moderator, Hong Kong architect and collector William Lim, Managing Director of CL3 Architects (HK), who like Lau is deeply invested in Hong Kong’s art scene. Lim asked the panel: ‘Is it possible nowadays to even define art, or collecting, within a region, within a geographic context?’

The panel agreed that sense of place has become diffuse in the global marketplace. Keir ​cited Hong Kong born artist Paul Chan, who moved to the US when he was just two but maintaining something of ‘this place’, and South Korean artist Haegue Yang, who has lived in Berlin for many years and is totally embedded in that art scene, as examples of the kind of global citizenry that many artists today embody.

Lau positioned trans-Pacific collecting at the crossroads between two conflicting trends: sense of place and internationalism. ‘I think right now there is a huge grip of artists like that, with very diverse backgrounds – where the live, were bought up – and so when we think of trans-pacific collecting that would be the grey zone.’

Keir and Khannan both see nationality as a minor issue in collecting. ‘I am often attracted to (collecting) artists who don’t come from one single place, or have no one national identity,’ ​said Keir.

Khannan observed that as private collectors they were free from the sense of cultural responsibility in museum collections., ‘I never even think when looking at an artist which region he / she comes from. It is never considered,’ he said.

An art fair or biennale then would seem to be the ideal platform for dissolving antiquated barriers and play a pivotal role is deepening collecting trends.

One bridge across geography is honed by collecting interests. ‘I like text and language,’ said Lau. ‘If you think of the work of the Chinese Xu Bing and what John Baldessari has been doing for many years, I think that can have an interesting dialogue. I am trying to create a conversation with the artists and also within that collection.’

Lau made the point that living in Hong Kong there was an obligation to engage the broader context of what is happening in Asia and China. ‘I always feel an obligation to collect my version of history. So many artists are directly posing question and I feel an obligation to collect that, and people can look back in twenty years and say that is really a part of what happened in our part of the world.’

Khannan added: ‘There are things you believe in – political issues – and it is a challenge that you want to find your way out. They’re in the art and you want to bring them forward. It is my way of saying I am part of that struggle that is happening.’

‘I think that is a very important part of collecting contemporary art that there is a patron relationship, I guess, as you are saying that what that artist is doing is really interesting,’ joined Keir.

If we look at art fairs and biennales then, what is that work saying and how through collecting is it being endorsed – or more importantly as Lau suggests – provides a catalyst to change across a broader social geography.

‘Two or three years ago, my observation was that everyone coming to the fair asked “what is a cool artist in Hong Kong that I should watch out for?” and they would write down the name. But (with) so much to see at the fair, the HK artists don’t get the attention and remained as names in a book. I think that has changed. Now there is much more conscious decision to include local artists in group shows or solo presentations,’ said Lau.

Keir added: ‘I guess art fairs, like biennales, bring people together and that changes things. It makes people look outside their city, and because they are both “event things”, they tend to create other events around them – parallel events that become just as important. So the art fair and biennale become a catalyst.’

Another catalyst is challenging the way institutions collect. Lau recently donated a work by Tino Seghal to Hong Kong’s M+ collection. It was a work to be performed by the museum’s security guards, overcoming what might be perceived as a “Hong Kong problem” if spoken in English, Cantonese or Mandarin. Rather, ‘we tried to do something much more physical.’

Activated by the audience when entering the gallery the museum guards kiss. Lau hoped he had throw ‘a little bit of challenge to the art scene in Hong Kong…You can imagine all the different permutations – man/woman, man/man, older and young guard, racially mixed… I look forward to see how courageous M+ will be.’

So while language has been removed as a barrier, perhaps cultural and social mores remain as challenges in trans-pacific collecting. Lau felt – along with the other panel members – the Seghal work demonstrated the kind of dialogues that are possible across collecting spaces today.

It was the attraction that biennales had for the panelists. ‘In the end, biennales do have a big impact on collecting and they have certainly had a big impact to my approach to collecting, because I think they develop a certain kind of material that I am very attracted to, and I have subsequently bought work from biennales,’ said Keir.

‘What artists do for biennales is that they sometimes suspend themselves a bit from the market and that is what I find attractive – obviously it is a grey area. The market does have an impact on how biennales are put together, and visa versa I hope.’

Keir added that the importance of galleries in the whole art infrastructure, however, remains key. His advice was to collecting was to find galleries who will talk to you.

Khannan agreed adding that, ‘you need to find someone to hold hands with, and the connections flow. It is a small world.’

‘It is a filtering process in the same way that you look for artists that resonate with you, you also look for galleries you can connect with,’ said Lau.

So while this conversation was conducted within the environment of one of the hottest art fairs of the day – and arguably at the intersection and forefront of trans-pacific collecting – all four collectors agreed that it was not auctions and fairs, but rather galleries that grow collectors.

Top image: Paul Chan, The argument: Antietam, (detail), 2013, courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York, © Paul Chan, photo: Tom Bisig

First published on ArtsHub 8 April 2015.